Please Feel the Museum: The Emergence of 3D Printing and Scanning

Liz Neely, USA , Miriam Langer, USA


The September 2012 design issue of Wired magazine features the new Makerbot 3D printer on its cover, with the headline “This Machine will Change the World.” Will it? The dialogue of participatory and collaborative production must be revisited as new technologies make physical design and construction accessible to the general public. The emergence of a 3D production ecosystem that is broadly accessible both in cost and ease of use makes this technology of particular and immediate interest to museums. There are multitudes of opportunities for 3D scanning and printing. Models of museum objects can take on a creative life of their own through further derivation, by becoming parts of new collections of things or by being connected through programming and sensors. By the very nature of the name, Museums and the Web has explored how the Internet can be used to further the missions of our museums. 3D printing adds a new parallel dimension by rematerializing the Web in small plastic forms. The paper documents and explores how 3D printing and scanning can be used to help our audiences feel the museum.

Keywords: 3D,3D scanning, 3D printing, hackathon, future of museums, emerging hardware, makers, creativity

The deepest  z-axis you can ever imagine is in every artwork. – Bill Viola

In the past year we have seen an explosion in the hype cycle surrounding three-dimensional (3D) printing. The September 2012 design issue of Wired magazine features the new Makerbot 3D printer on its cover, with the headline “This Machine will Change the World.” Every day seems to deliver a new story touting the power of 3D printing to revolutionize manufacturing, medicine, fashion and food. Despite the coverage and intrigue, this technology and its specific museum applications remains a bit abstract. This paper reveals how the emergence of a 3D production ecosystem that is broadly accessible both in cost and ease of use makes this technology of particular and immediate interest to museums. From conservation to education, collections access to exhibition planning, multitudes of opportunities are ripe for exploration in museums of all kinds.

1. X, Y, and Z origins and context

Why are so many people excited about this technology right now? At this moment, 3D printing remains a bit of a novelty and source of wonderment to the average consumer, and an obsession for enthusiasts. Though far more sophisticated versions of this technology have existed in industrial design studios for decades, the recent popularity has emerged from a convergence of tools and trends that democratize access for an average consumer both in terms of price points and learning curves. The origins of the consumer 3D movement stem from the broader trends of the maker movement, including the do-it-yourself (DIY) and open hardware community.

Maker Movement and Makerspaces

To fully understand the context and potential of 3D technologies, it is important to note its placement as a subset of the broader principles and ethos of what is called the “maker movement.”

The maker movement is both a response to and an outgrowth of digital culture, made possible by the convergence of several trends. New tools and electronic components let people integrate the physical and digital worlds simply and cheaply. Online services and design software make it easy to develop and share digital blueprints. And many people who spend all day manipulating bits on computer screens are rediscovering the pleasure of making physical objects and interacting with other enthusiasts in person, rather than online. – Economist (Dec 3, 2011)

In a sense, this trend is a return to materiality. People have a deeper appreciation of physical interactions, especially after spending hours interfacing with infinite pixels and bits on screens. Atoms delight senses that have been slowly atrophying.

Libraries are leading the charge for incorporating makerspaces, collaborative community spaces for tinkering and sharing maker tools such as 3D printers into their spaces. “Typically, the spaces will: foster play and exploration, facilitate informal learning opportunities, nurture peer-to-peer training, work with community members as true partners, not as users or patrons, develop a culture of creating as opposed to consuming” (Britton, 2012). Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, “discovered that learning in these spaces is often driven by the demand for knowledge, as opposed to the supply of knowledge” (Britton, 2012). Museums are a natural fit for these types of informal learning activities. Karen Wilkinson, director of the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, spoke on the panel “What’s the Point of a Museum Makerspace?” at the MCN conference in November, 2012. She argued, “The difference between ‘make-and-take’ and ‘makerspace’ is the variety in the end product, and the ownership over the full process that the maker feels” (Wilkinson, 2012).

Adopting ideas and foundations from the maker movement provides one particularly exciting opportunity to transform the museum experience by developing audiences that actively engage with collection objects through making. Successful programs such as ArtLab+ at the Hirshhorn Museum have incorporated participatory interpretation through a variety of media. Indeed, museum education departments have long conducted art-making classes for visitors, and in many senses these 3D making techniques are natural extensions of these programs. Access to networks of other producers and artists via online maker social networks extend these activities beyond physical museums in a way that has not been broadly available in the past; and allow for sharing, remixing, and building a community of creators.

Atoms to Bits, Bits to Atoms, Atoms to Bits, etc.

Up until now, digital technology as implemented in museums has been largely screen-based. Initially, this meant museum websites; then kiosks, video, touchscreens, and interactives in the gallery; and digitization projects, DAM, and LODLAM efforts—in effect, a massive attempt to get everything digitized, shared across different platforms, and made accessible. Currently, the focus is on mobile apps, tablets, and customized devices for enhanced tours that deliver personalized bits of information to our visitors.

So of course, when visitors envision a technology component in a museum, they imagine the latest incarnation of screen-based enhancements that have been employed with varying degrees of success as digital and networked technologies in the museum have evolved. Visitors may now expect some screen-based interaction to be available in most exhibit spaces, from smartphone audio tours to enhanced and user-generated content on handheld and portable devices.

Doing the ‘Flip-Flop”—from Object to Screen, and Back Again

It may be the case that Robin Sloan, a writer and self-described “media inventor,” was the first to use the term “flip-flop” for the physical–digital–physical process outlined below.  Whether he coined it or not, he is credited with popularizing this now-adopted term, thanks to his Twitter followers, numbering well over 200,000. In his post, “Dance the Flip-Flop,” he defines the term: “the flip-flop (n.) the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again—maybe more than once” (Sloan, 2012).

He continues:

That’s pretty abstract Here’s an example recipe:
1. Carve a statue out of stone. PHYSICAL
2. Digitize your statue with a 3D scanner. DIGITAL
3. Make some edits. Shrink it down. Add wings. STILL DIGITAL
4. Print the edited sculpture in plastic with a 3D printer. PHYSICAL AGAIN


It’s step three above that is most crucial to the flip-flop, because that’s where it becomes clear you aren’t aiming for fidelity in these transitions from physical to digital and back. That’s where your work gets exposed to a whole new set of tools—really, a whole new physics. (Sloan, 2012)

In a museum setting, this allows visitors to either set in motion a potentially infinite number of flip-flops or step in at any part of the chain and take an object or digital file in a new direction.

2. Creative engagement using 3D

Restrictions on allowing visitors to take photographs in galleries are on the wane. Whether  the new acceptance of photography is due to an “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach or a recognition that photo sharing is key to word-of-mouth marketing, visitors are more free  than ever to snap away in galleries where the museum owns full rights to the works. At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, as well as other museums, visitors are actively encouraged to document their visit by taking photographs—even of the museum’s most famous masterwork, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Because 3D models of collection objects are generally formed by stitching together photographs using the process called photogrammetry, this overall shift in gallery policy enables visitors to examine the object more deeply through the process of creating a 3D model.

Introducing the opportunity to create a full 360-degree scan, which can then produce a 3D print, allows a visitor to go deeper into the experience of the object. The time that it takes to construct the virtual model means closely scrutinizing; making mistakes and fixing them; and finally producing a finished model that can be modified, printed, shared, modified again, mashed up with other models, printed again, and so on—in an infinite process of sharing and changing, all of which can be traced and mapped.

Each different function of the 3D ecosystem—scanning, designing, manipulating, printing, and sharing—allows for different types of engagement with a museum’s collection. The dialogue caused by this active interaction not only increases a visitor’s dwell time with the object—whether at the museum, online or through a replicated model—but can also stimulate a deeper engagement through the quality of the interaction.

In 1999, Peter Samis, associate curator of Interpretive Media at SFMOMA, published a paper entitled “Artwork as Interface,” in which he discussed how artworks act as conversation prompts to promote social participation in the gallery and online (Samis, 1999). A different study by Jennifer Trant and Bruce Wyman, which focused on the tagging project, found that when visitors interacted with museum objects through artwork tagging, they:

…interpreted the works of art by placing them in their personal narrative. Built on constructivist educational theory that emphasizes personal meaning-making and a user-centered focus in the development of on-line and in-gallery experiences, these projects strive to provide a unique and compelling engagement with works of art. (Trant & Wyman, 2006)

Research from the tagging project can be applicable in developing frameworks for exploring collection engagement with 3D technologies, because similar interactions with the work are followed by a personal interpretation.

Each of the functions of the 3D tool kit offers many opportunities for developing programs for engaging visitors with collections. It should be noted that these functions can be modular, and programs can be designed using only certain aspects of these technologies—not every program needs to be a week-long, tech-heavy exploration. Creative programs could be as short as an hour focused on making 3D digital models in the gallery. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry has a ‘Fab Lab’ Makerspace with designed making workshops for a manageable 20- to 60-minute timeframe (Museum of Science and Industry, 2013). The following section outlines the opportunities and challenges in each function to help program designers creatively develop public programs using as much or as little as they want from the chain of technologies.

Capturing the 3D Model of the Collection

Creating a 3D model of a collection object no longer requires highly specialized equipment or technical savvy; thus, it has become accessible for museum public programs. For example, the freely available software 123D Catch from AutoDesk democratizes photogrammetry, a process that develops a 3D model by analyzing and stitching together photographs. To create a 3D model of the object, the visitor must photograph it from every angle, requiring a close examination and consideration of the object’s form. To create a really good 3D scan without massive distortion, the photographer must look carefully at the artwork, think about angles, consider shadows, and capture all physical details. This is just the kind of thought and ”close looking” we want to encourage in the museum. When a photogrammetric model is unsuccessful, even this failure can initiate a point of dialogue. What caused this failure? Was it a missed angle? Are areas lost in shadow? Is the shape too amorphous? The failed model may provide a surprising launch pad from which to celebrate a derivative “glitch” creation. Glitches and other unintended transformations are prevalent because the freely available 3D creation tools are young and evolving.

Figure 1: An SAIC class scanning sculptures for 3D capture in a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago

Figure 1: An SAIC class scanning sculptures for 3D capture in a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago


Printing brings in the tactile nature of production and builds a different kind of relationship between the visitor, collection object, and derivative replica. Beyond the initial novelty, the print engages the sense of touch to allow a sense of creation, ownership, and personalization of the museum. It is part of the museum that can physically go home with the visitor to extend the experience—like the old-fashioned wax mold-a-ramas. But because a process of making and translation is involved in the creation of the print, the replica is more than simply the material manifestation—it is a physical embodiment of the engagement.


Access to these 3D digital models provides a deeper opportunity for new kinds of engagement with the collection through creative remixing. Researchers at Cornell University assert that manipulating 3D models offers a depth of experience consistent with developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s description of cognitive development; that is: to know an object a subject must act on it and thus transform it—displace, connect, combine, take apart, and reassemble it (Cohen, 1983). With the democratization of 3D tools, CAD and other 3D design programs have free versions and are becoming easier to use. The collections can take on new forms and new lives as source material for new creative production. Artist Tom Burtonwood mashed up Mastiff ((Tomb Figurine), Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25–220)) with Architectural Brick with Ogre Mask (Tang dynasty (A.D. 618–907)), both from the Art Institute of Chicago, to create Ogre Puppy, 2012 (Burtonwood, 2012). Artists Anney Fresh and Keith Ozar animated Standing Female Deity, probably Durga (seventh to eighth century) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with arms and electronics (Fresh & Ozar, 2012). Artist Plummer-Fernandez took 3D scans from the Met scan-a-thon and used a Processing sketch to distort the meshes responding to sound waves (Plummer-Fernandez, 2012).

Figure 2: Tom Burtonwood forms a new artwork by  remixing 2 sculptures from the Art Institute of Chicago collection

Figure 2: Tom Burtonwood forms a new artwork by remixing 2 sculptures from the Art Institute of Chicago collection

Some museums may fear that this openness to adaptation interferes with the integrity of the collection, but artist adaptation and remixing of other artist’s works has been a very engine of creative production for centuries. Hasan Niyazi, an independent digital art historian, recently chronicled this phenomenon during the Renaissance in the blog post “Alteration and invention – Raphael, Vermeer and the mashup” (Niyazi, 2013). This type of engagement allows our visitors to develop a different kind of relationship with our objects and our museums. Reinvoking Peter Samis’ terminology, the artwork becomes the interface to derive whole new lineages of printed and remixed ”things,” encouraging new conversations and communities around it. Though he specifically referred to media artifacts, theorist Henry Jenkins’ assertion could also apply to museum objects: “…artifacts have greatest impact when consumers are able to pass on, reuse, adapt, and remix them” (Jenkins, 2009). This theory also maps well with the overall maker ethos of creating, adapting and open sharing within a community.

Figure 3: Anney Fresh and Keith Ozar's animated reinterpretation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Standing Female Deity, possibly Durga

Figure 3: Anney Fresh and Keith Ozar’s animated reinterpretation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Standing Female Deity, probably Durga

3. “Spreadability” and the social object

When models are shared on 3D-sharing sites like the Thingiverse, they become ”social objects.” “Social objects are the engines of socially networked experiences, the content around which conversation happens” (Simon, 2010). The transformation of a collection object into a social object allows access to a wider and more diverse audience. “And when we do it right, this approach brings people together across social division towards something approaching understanding and mutual respect” (Simon, 2010). New communities emerge, new online collections converge, and new relationships are made of duplicated, derivative, and remixed objects. Whole new lineages and genealogies grow with museum objects interwoven.

Figure 4: The Art Institute of Chicago on sharing 3D models and collections on the Thingiverse

Figure 4: The Art Institute of Chicago Thingiverse profile to share and connect people with 3D models of the collection

Media theorist Henry Jenkins uses the word ”spreadability” to describe the ability of consumers, or museum visitors, to use information, photographs, and media to remix, share, etc. Spreadability supports users’ “processes of meaning making, as people use tools at their disposal to explain the world around them” (Jenkins, 2009). Some within the museum may find this concept of sharing remixes and derivatives of the collection uncomfortable. Spreadability means giving up some control in order to build stronger social ties with those communities who are interested in museum content. “Content—in whole or through quotes—does not remain in fixed borders but rather circulates in unpredicted and often unpredictable directions, not the product of top-down design but rather the result of a multitude of local decisions made by autonomous agents negotiating their way through diverse cultural spaces” (Jenkins, 2009).

4. Broader uses for 3D technologies in museums

The growing accessibility of 3D printing and scanning also has impact on the behind-the-scenes work of the museum. Harvard University’s Semitic Museum used 3D printing and scanning software to recreate a ceramic lion that was smashed 3,000 years ago when Assyrians attacked the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi (Flaherty, 2012). Günter Waibel, director of the Digitization Program Office at Smithsonian Institution, and his colleagues Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, have been leading the Smithsonian into 3D on many fronts, including creating replicas of objects for display in multiple venues, such as that of a “museum-quality” 3D printed Thomas Jefferson statue (Mashable, 2012). Dale Kronkright explored the use of photogrammetry in conservation at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in a project that documented the condition of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home by creating 3D models that will be compared against any shifts in the state of the building. The process and outcomes are well documented in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Imaging Project blog (2012). Adam Orcutt, director of Digital Output Technologies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, speculates that one day we will be able to capture 3D scans of layers beneath an object’s surface, much as we now use in our 2D conservation and research labs (Orcutt, 2013). One can also imagine this technology being very helpful in exhibition planning for galleries including 3D objects.

Figure 5: A recreated statue of a lion from from the Mesopotamian town of Nuzi. (Photo from Learning Sites/Neathawk Signs and Designs)

Figure 5: A recreated statue of a lion from from the Mesopotamian town of Nuzi. (Photo from Learning Sites/Neathawk Signs and Designs (Flaherty, 2012))

Believing the Hype?

For those of us who are newly crazy for printing with PLA plastic (and its less-environmentally friendly sibling, ABS), we like to say that 3D printing for museums, home enthusiasts, and the Maker/DIY community is a unique disruptive technology that is fairly open and accessible. The dropping price of printer kits, the inevitable resale market that results from the rapid generational turnaround of the technology, along with free software for creating models and modifying scans, makes the barriers to entry negligible. With a minimal amount of preparation and training, a fully engaged 3D printing experience is a likely outcome.

Today, consumer-grade 3D prints are low resolution and limited to garish one- or two-color plastic. On the more inexpensive models, printing is very slow and glitchy and tops out at object sizes that could only be included in a fast food kids’ meal or a cereal box. For those who have been with it from the beginning, it has felt like a long road of bug repair and nozzle unclogging; however, the big leap to ease of use and hardware/software robustness seems to have happened. The introduction of the Makerbot Replicator 2 (single) and 2x (dual) has made lower-maintenance plug-and-play a real possibility. Powder printing at the higher price point and open source kits at the lower price point mean that there is a machine for everyone.

It is almost impossible to stop the progress of 3D printing long enough to assess it. As in the early days of personal computing and mobile technology, it is changing and developing incredibly fast. For example, MAKE magazine published its “Definitive Guide to 3D Printing” on November 20, 2012. At over 100 pages, this guide should be useful for more than a month or two, but due to the explosion of options in this area, already many more printer manufacturers (and new models) have entered the arena.

Figure 6: Kids at enjoying a lesson in 3D printing at the Art Institute of Chicago

Figure 6: Kids at enjoying a lesson in 3D printing at the Art Institute of Chicago

Three-axis printing has captured the imaginations of artists, educators, engineers, and architects, along with all the science fiction enthusiasts who have dreamed of its becoming reality ever since its appearance in Star Trek. However, we can take a moment for some reflection on the opportunities this emerging technology makes available to museums: the chance to intensify the visitor’s experience by encouraging engagement in the process of full-object scanning, public use of the compelling (and even hypnotic) mechanical hardware that prints in three dimensions, and participation of both museum visitors and staff in the various points along the flip-flop continuum.

The (Near) Future

With new Kickstarters and printing techniques released every week, it is fair to say that we will see a tsunami of innovation in 3D printing and scanning technology over the next few years. The technological advancements will undoubtedly be equivalent to the evolution of monochrome dot-matrix printers to color laser printers. Future 3D printers will be higher resolution, faster, able to represent full color, and much less expensive to purchase. Printers will be more widely available for materials beyond plastic, including ceramics and metal. Wood-composite filament, such as LAYWOO-D3, is already available for consumer 3D printers. This will also mean shake-ups in the industry: already the companies who have made industrial 3D printers are seeing the market opportunity, and it is unclear how this will play out against smaller, more grassroots manufacturers. Additionally, instead of visiting a makerspace to use a shared 3D printer, 3D printing service bureaus will find room next to the plotter at the FedEx Office and are already popping up in national chains like Staples.

Software and scanning tools for capturing, repairing, and manipulating models will need to keep up with the rapid pace of printing hardware evolution. Many of the mechanical steps will mercifully be eliminated and automated. Though the “glitch” phenomenon may be marginalized, successful 3D captures will become expected and allow for wider access to models. One can imagine a time when access to 3D models for common things will be taken for granted.

Open questions remain about the future of regulation surrounding the capture, ownership, copyright, sharing, and commercializing of “things” (i.e., models, derivatives, replicas). Much like during the initial days of the mp3 music file format, conversations return to issues of digital rights management (DRM) and other tracking mechanisms. Since DRM has been generally abandoned by major music distributors, including Apple iTunes, it seems probable that the industry would not try to adopt such restrictions (Johnson, 2009). Copyright and restrictions on recreating 3D objects and assumptions that the same rules apply as with other copyright are not necessarily correct. Public Knowledge published “What’s the Deal with Copyright and 3D Printing?” that outlines the specific legal principles guiding 3D reproduction of objects (Weinberg, 2013).

So does my museum buy a printer, or wait?

One could argue that there is never an ideal moment to invest in emerging hardware, as generations are short and improvements are significant; however, investing in 3D printing hardware now allows museum staff to become familiar with the technology before it becomes more of a “black box”—that mysterious, magical place where the process of construction is no longer in evidence. While all mass-market technology tends toward that place, it’s possible at this moment to own a printer made locally, by hand, or even built in-house by your own team. Consider your goals in choosing a printer. If you are interested in the design of the hardware process, build a printer from a kit and explore open-source printing options. Models that come pre-built can get you up and running more quickly and perhaps will have fewer technical issues. One option may be to partner with a local makerspace or library to test the waters and experiment with programs in your museum. Because of the community ethos of these spaces, you will likely find creative, eager, and willing partners that minimize your initial investment.

5. Feeling the museum

Futurist F.T. Marinetti wrote in his “Futurist Manifesto” that “Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed” (Marinetti, 1909). And as researchers Peter Walters and Katie Davies reflect on Marinetti’s idea, they are inspired by artists of the past:

3D printing opens up the possibility for remote artworks instantaneously in multiple locations. One hundred years after the publication of the Futurist Manifesto, we can only begin to imagine how pioneers of early 20th Century art and design such as Marinetti, Russolo and Moholy Nagy would have responded to these 21st Century technologies, and what new kinds of art they would have been inspired to create, striving to marry the poetics and speed of this industrial process. (Walters & Davies, 2010)

Access to the 3D functions of scanning, designing, manipulating, printing, and sharing allows our audiences to engage with our museum collections tangibly and creatively. These participatory actions both increase dwell time with the object or its digital surrogate and deepen visitors’ emotional relationship with the object by allowing them to make it their own.

While responses to a 3D printed object range widely from the blasé, “Cool, but what could I do with that?” to “Wow, what can’t I do with that!”, we have enough evidence to know that this technology is having its moment right now. What directions it will go will be up to the organizations, institutions, and individuals who dive in to this moment, taking small steps or big leaps with all the attendant challenges that emergent hardware brings. One thing we do know is that encouraging museum visitors to look closely, to connect with an object through scanning, and to learn its history and story through printing and sharing, fits the mission of most museums. It’s time to “Feel the Museum.”


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Cite as:
L. Neely and M. Langer, Please Feel the Museum: The Emergence of 3D Printing and Scanning. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted .

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